HERON LAKE - Approaching its 100th anniversary, the Heron Lake Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s interior will soon look like it’s hardly aged a day.

That’s the hope of a group of dedicated church parishioners, who have been coordinating an extensive restoration project for the past six years. With God’s guidance, members of the church committee share the common mission of restoring the interior to its intended condition of when its construction began in 1919 to the time of its dedication in 1921.

“When you’ve got something like this, it would be a shame to let it go and not continue to keep it up,” said Steve Hussong, a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church who chairs the pew and wood refinishing restoration subcommittee.

Feeling blessed by previous generations’ generosity, parish members felt strongly about their mission to preserve the church’s beauty for future generations. A Restoration Foundation Board was initiated in 2012 and has since grown by several subcommittees; there are approximately 50 involved members.

According to Parish Council President and Restoration Steering Committee Chairman Larry Liepold, about 75% of the first phase has now been completed. The church belongs to the National Historic Registry.

Replacement of the church’s boiler and appliances, as well as a switch to natural gas to gain efficiencies in heating, cooling and lighting, occurred first. As those projects materialized, committee members saw further opportunity to beautify the church’s sacred areas.

Removal of pews began in mid-February to make way for scaffolding and other construction material in the sanctuary. By the first part of March, the congregation moved their mass services to the basement’s social hall, where they’ll remain until restoration has concluded.

In the meantime, Henning Church and Historical Restoration continues to repair damaged and cracked plaster, repaint the walls and molding, and touch up murals. Toward the front of the church, the stone ambo will be repaired, and marble imported from an Italian mine will be installed at the main altar and tabernacle.

The earliest committee members expect the first phase to be completed is fall. They aren’t rushing the project, so that it may be completed to its full potential.

The ultimate goal, they agree, is to be finished for Christmas. They’re excited to open their doors to Christmas mass guests, who can be in awe and appreciate its beauty during the special time of year.

Rich history

Current restoration committee members recognize and appreciate the dedication of those before them, who made financial and life sacrifices to manually build the church that still stands today at 321 Ninth St. in Heron Lake.

From the farmers who turned out with a team of horses and slip scrapers to young school boys who would walk fields picking rock for the building’s foundation, everyone played an important role to bring a church initially delayed by the outbreak of World War I to fruition.

Although it was first decided to build a new church in 1916 after the congregation outgrew the old building, the replacement wasn’t officially dedicated until Aug. 25, 1921.

“The day it was dedicated they shut the town down,” Liepold said. “Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists … all shared in the joy of it opening and marveling the majesty of it for the area.”

For better or worse, this isn’t the only restoration/remodel/redecorating the church has seen over the years, with the first occurring in 1932.

It was the 1947 redecoration that eliminated the canvas painted saints from the 16 vertical pillars around the pews - presumably from being painted over, said restoration committee member John Stenzel. The current restoration project plans to bring them back.

Other changes occurred sometime in the 1960s, as the focus of the church’s beauty was reprioritized to the liturgy and service, said Mackenzie Erickson, co-chairperson of the sacred areas and art subcommittee.

“A lot of the decoration actually came out,” she said of ornate plaster, communion rails and statues - as shown in old photographs and from people’s recollection - that disappeared.

Another major renovation didn’t occur next until 1974. Carpet, plaster repairment and paint and mural and ceiling cleaning were among the projects accomplished during that time.

An elevator was installed in 2000.

In the effort to restore the church to its original intention, volunteer committee members have relied heavily on old photos, documents, its congregation members and even a church in West Bend, Iowa.

“It’s almost identical in the structure and the art is very similar,” said Erickson of West Bend’s Grotto of the Redemption, which committee members believe was a result of the two churches’ priests being friends before Sacred Heart was constructed.  

Despite some obstacles that would be expected in a project of similar magnitude, committee members are pleased that they’ve thus far been able to accomplish their three main goals they determined at the onset:

  1. Restoration to its original intent to the best of their knowledge.
  2. Not acquire additional debt.  
  3. Complete in one seamless process.

Committee members agree accomplishing those three goals has been possible due to the faithful support of many volunteers, and the support and generosity of their fellow parishioners.

“Generosity of the parishioners is one thing that is mind-boggling,” said Richard Freking, a pew and wood refinishing subcommittee member.

Hussong said like many other church congregations, Sacred Heart has less parishioners as time continues.

“So it’s still the dedication of the families that are here and have a name to it that want to preserve it,” he said.

As the first phase of restoration draws to a close later this year, the work will not be done. Committee members anticipate a second restoration phase in the future, which will likely prioritize the church’s exterior. The timing of the second phase has yet to be determined, as it depends upon future priority and resources.

“The doors are open and we’re here for our parishioners,” Liepold said. “We’ve created a space where they can come in, feel welcome and pray as they wish and not be disturbed.”